One week in Abuja
The petrol queues were long. A brink trade was going on everywhere by people selling petrol on the road side in jerry cans. Tessy, driving her Mercedes 230E, needed petrol and stopped to buy from the jerry can vendors. As she opened her door, one young man jumped into her car on the driver’s side, five other men were opening other doors trying to get in. Tessy had the presence of mind and luckily had actually not turned off the engine of her car. She put her foot down on the accelerator. The car jumped forward, leaving behind the other men about to enter the car. But one was already inside. As she sped away a mighty struggle for the steering began, the car swerving from side to side in those wide Abuja streets. She managed to get to the front of the gate leading to Hilton hotel. She swerved right, causing the security men to jump aside for their dear life. The gate was open – she sped through it as the struggle for the steering continued. She swiped some concrete barriers and finally hit one just near the entrance of the hotel. She jumped out, screaming “thief, thief.” The young man in the car tried to escape but was caught.
At the police station the desk officer recognised the young man and said “You again; I think say na Toyota and Nissan una dey thief; now una don reach Mercedes.” Apparently a few days before, this same young man had been caught trying to steal a Toyota. He was charged and bailed. He tried to commit the same offence a few days later. Abuja is dangerous now for carjacking and kidnapping.
In Lagos two weeks ago, Sewa and her sister were on a motorbike going home when three other bikes blocked their bike, and stole all their possession, took the key of the bike they had hired and sped off. Crime reporters in the media have stopped reporting this kind of crimes because there’s just too many committed all over the country.
My friend received an SMS headed Presidency and asked him to send his CV to one Dr. Akate, Head Selection Committee for Federal Government appointments for Directors/Ambassadors. The CV was to be sent to osgf.presidency.ng.com. My friend dutifully sent his CV and called the number in the SMS. Some chap trying to sound like a Northerner answered and told him that his papers has been received and forwarded to the NSA for clearance and he should contact another Mrs. (Dr). An hour or so later my friend was called again. This time, he was told that the NSA had finished the process of clearance three days before; but if my friend still wants, he could help by “facilitating” his CV and push it among those already cleared if my friend paid some money to an account in First Bank. My friend did not pay. So he would not get a Federal appointment.
I tried to leave Abuja on Saturday but I could not because there was local government election and there was no movement from 7a.m. – 4p.m. I have never understood why in Nigeria during election all movements are restricted. Has anybody worked out the man hours lost by these restrictions and the cost to the nation? We must devise a better way and attitude to voting and politics. These restrictions do not seem to have reduced violence and the costs are phenomenal.
On Sunday I tried to leave for Lagos. The approach roads to the checking in carters have now been changed, once more, causing a mighty logjam. Many would have missed their flights if the flights left on time but luckily on that Sunday, because of fuel shortage, many flights were delayed. So our cars crawled in front of the massive new building the Chinese were putting up at the airport. I remembered that no one had ever told us the cost of these projects that one Finance Minister told us of her ministry did not know, and that bills were drawn up by the Ministry of Transport and were directly debited on Nigeria by China. How can we not know how much a government facility was costing and how was it paid for? Is Nigeria some banana republic?
Last week FAAN revealed that it had not remitted over N80 billion belonging to the Federal Government.
While waiting for my flight, I then looked at the breakdown of the cost of my ticket. I was astounded. My ticket cost N49, 610 – Abuja to Lagos. N10, 500 charges were unintelligible to me: N4, 500; another N3, 000 new charge fees. Tickets are not refundable, non-endorsable; flight dates, times and routes are changeable subject to applicable charges. I believe the actual fare was N23, 500; on top of that there was a fuel surcharge of N23, 810, VAT; Ticket Sales Charge N650, Passenger Service Charge N1000. But that is not all, FAAN has another stamp – Passenger Service Charge N1000; some airlines charge N2000 even though the stamp says N1, 000.
What is going on? Finally, we board the plane and then they start refuelling the plane. It is usually prohibited for planes to be refuelled while passengers are on the plane (these are exceptions). Even after that we cannot leave because the airport is closed because of Presidential movement!!
All of us have sometimes been inconvenienced by what is called Presidential Movement. The idea is that when the President is flying there is strict control of all other flights – these controls usually mean that if your flight has not taken off, then it cannot leave until the President plane has landed or passed. Sometimes the delays are for hours – the Presidential entourage may not have left its abode before a clamp down is put on all flights. The President may be delayed or he may change his schedule and this information is not relayed. Most flights in Nigeria are under one hour but Presidential movement delays are a lot more than that; sometimes it’s more than two hours; once it starts the backlog gets worse and worse during the rest of the day causing more miseries and inconveniences. For international flights, the plane is required to circulate for an hour or so before landing if a Presidential Movement is clamped down.
I am sure that those who impose these restrictions on other flights do not really want to punish the flying public but the effect of their action is precisely that.
Is the President’s plane safer when no other plane is flying? I would have thought that in these days of RPGs isolating the President’s plane would attract more attention. The plane itself, I would imagine, would have more sophisticated defence gadgets. Nevertheless, thousands of passengers will miss their connecting flights, if one is unfortunate enough to be caught up in one of these Presidential Movement delays. The President works for us. Yes his life must be protected but not at the inconvenience of the public.
I cannot imagine JFK Airport, La Guardia or Newark airports in New York being closed for anything except severe national crisis like 9/11. Nor would London Heathrow be closed because the Queen is flying – by the way she flies on British Airways, usually on scheduled flights when some seats are screened off for her and her entourage. How do other countries do this essential security job of protecting their Presidents and Heads of State? I am aware that security officers used to have fairly close ties with British, U.S., French and other security forces. We should learn from them.
Finally, Abuja seems unaware of the problems of Nigeria, except the petrol queues. The atmosphere is expectant, super charged, coiled like a snake waiting to pounce. There is no money and the whole town is waiting for the release of funds once the budget process is over. The body language of the expectancy would suggest that the fear of corruption or peddling of influence for money may not heed the Administration’s precepts.
• Patrick Dele Cole, OFR, a former Nigerian Ambassador, lives in Lagos.
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